KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Atlanta Motor Speedway plays host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for a daytime race in the crisp air of late winter rather than a nighttime race in the heat of late summer. Gone is the Labor Day weekend event at the 1.54-mile oval and back is an early-season race in March, which had been an Atlanta staple dating back to the 1960s.
Rather than serving as the penultimate race before the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as it had since 2009, Atlanta now serves as the second race of the year. The stop in NASCAR’s Southeastern base allows teams a return to the routine of a three-day race weekend after spending nearly two weeks in Daytona Beach, Florida, for Budweiser Speedweeks and the season-opening Daytona 500.
Drivers and team personnel are creatures of habit, and Atlanta is a welcome respite from Daytona by providing practice and qualifying on Friday, a final practice on Saturday and a race on Sunday. Some of these same drivers and crewmen would argue that Atlanta in 2015 has less pressure than in years past, for the deadline to make the 16-driver Chase field is 25 races away, a far cry from the two-race deadline drivers endured during previous seasons. No one’s back is up against a wall.
Tony Stewart suggests otherwise. The driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) contends the game stays the same at Atlanta despite its new location on the schedule. While the Folds of Honor 500 on Sunday may not fall into the must-win category, it certainly provides a strong opportunity to win, and Stewart has proven to seize opportunity.
Of Stewart’s 48 career Sprint Cup wins, three have come at Atlanta (spring 2002, fall 2006 and 2010). Augmenting those wins is a pole in 2012 and 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 27 Sprint Cup starts. Stewart has led at least one lap in 14 different Atlanta races for a total of 974 laps led. In six of those races, Stewart was tops in laps led. Stewart dominated in each of his three victories, and on two other occasions Stewart finished second (fall 2003 and spring 2007) after leading the most laps (109 and 121 laps, respectively).
With Daytona becoming ever more distant in Stewart’s rearview mirror after an accident left him with a 42nd-place finish, Stewart sees a Chase berth at Atlanta, regardless of the time of year. After all, it’s win and you’re in, proving the game stays the same in Atlanta.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How much different will it be racing at Atlanta without the pressure of trying to make the Chase?
“I know some people think that drivers try harder at some races than others, but we don’t. We’re racers, and when we’re on the track, we race. I can tell you that every time I get in my Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy, I’m doing it because I want to win, whether it’s the first race on the schedule or the last. Sometimes there are circumstances that prevent you from being able to do that, but I look at this weekend’s race no different than I do a race 20 weeks from now. We’re going out there to try to win, just like every other race.”
This is the first 1.5-mile race of the season at it’s in NASCAR’s heartland, the Southeast. But with the three West Coast races immediately after Atlanta, how far in advance do you have to prepare for the start of the season?
“By the time we actually take cars down to Daytona, our others cars are already prepared for Atlanta, Vegas, Phoenix and California. That’s how far teams have to look ahead with the way the schedule begins. You look at the schedule, you look at builds, you look at preparation – that’s always the scenario all the way through the year. You’re always looking out weeks ahead and preparing weeks ahead. You know that four times a year we’re running restrictor‑plate cars like we were at Daytona last week, but you also know that when you go to the first mile‑and‑a‑half , it’s where you spend the majority of your schedule, so that’s where you’re really basing your performance off of. It doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose at Daytona. I don’t think that is a true benchmark of what your season is going to be like. We get a better idea of where we are beginning this week at Atlanta.”
Why are you looking forward to Atlanta so much after racing at Daytona?
“What you do at Atlanta is solely based on what you and your team can do with your racecar, not what drafting line you’re in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. Once we get away from Daytona, everything kind of settles into a groove. We’re back in the weekly grind. Atlanta is a track where you don’t really worry about what everybody else’s car is doing. You worry about what your car is doing. You’re racing the racetrack. You’re not racing everybody else. It’s a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things.”
Is there anything in particular you’re looking for at Atlanta?
“I don’t think we know what to expect when we get there. It’ll be the first time we’ve had the opportunity to drive these cars in traffic with the rules package for this year. I think the crew chiefs probably have a better idea than the drivers do at this point, but they’ll be prepared and ready to go.”
What do you expect when you come to Atlanta?
“I like racing there. It’s definitely a driver’s track. That’s why we love coming to Atlanta. I hope they never repave it. If they have to repave it, it will be out of necessity, not because of desire from us. That’s what makes this place fun is the fact that you’re going to move around from the bottom to the top every segment of the race. You are, at some point, going to have to move around and try to find a spot to make your car better. That’s what makes it so much fun being there.”
You have three Sprint Cup wins at Atlanta, and they’ve all come in dominating fashion, especially your most recent Atlanta win in 2010 when you led 176 laps. What are your expectations as you head back to Atlanta?
“We had a car that was just dominant all night long and you just don’t get very many nights where you’ve got a car that’s that good. You hope that when you go back you have that same opportunity.”
How is your confidence when you come to a racetrack where you have multiple victories and many other strong finishes?
“It always makes you feel good because know how to win there. It’s a matter of getting that feel to know what you need for the race. You always have that level of confidence knowing that you’ve been successful there in the past and you know how to do it.”
How fine of a line is it to find a comfort level when you’re on the racetrack at speed, particularly at Atlanta, where you’re running over 200 mph?
“Well, I don’t know that it’s a fine line. I mean, either you’re comfortable or you’re not. Nothing is happening this year that hasn’t happened for 100 years in racing. There’s nothing magical or mysterious going on here. Everybody is going out every week and we’re working with technology, but still at the end of the day, you’ve got a driver that’s driving the car. No matter how fast the computer says that car is going to be, if that driver is not comfortable driving it, then they’re not going to go fast. So you’ve got to tune these cars to the drivers and their feels, and that’s what makes them go fast.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine